Sunday, June 30, 2013

So much fun. Too much fun?

So why write a post about fun? Well fun and purposeful games, specifically gamification, are intertwined . The people who talk about gamification almost always give the impression that it is a tool to create more fun. Gamification makes working FUN. Gamification makes boring tasks FUN. Gamification makes learning FUN.

Fun is great, it gets people involved, they enjoy what they are doing and want to continue doing it. However, like the video above, you can only have so much of "so much fun". The problem with attaching purposeful games to "fun" is that it leaves you open to attacks like this. Postman essentially states that our obsession with entertainment is destroying rational thought and critical thinking in our society; the "killer-app"of his argument is television news. It is really hard to argue against him on that point. However, when I read Amusing Ourselves to Death, a long time ago, there was something that did not sit well with me. The "fun" described in the book was very different from the "fun" I was having playing Starcraft at the time. The amusement that Postman was referring to was passive entertainment but by championing purposeful games that try to make everything fun aren't we doing the same thing?

The answer is a resounding: It depends! There is some evidence that Postman's arguments can be applied to gamification. For instance, the reading encouragement programs in schools (like the BookIT program) are complete failures. In these programs, kids get points for reading books and can redeem these points for free pizza. It was found that kids in these programs were reading more, but were less likely to understand what they read and had changed their reading habits towards shorter and less substantial material. 

On the other end of the argument is Jane McGonigal and her full-throated defense of how games can make the world better. For instance, she mentions a game called World Without Oil which was, essentially, an online game of Dungeons and Dragons where the players pretended to be in a "World Without Oil" and then blogged about their experience. Other players could help them along and provide solutions to the problems that they faced. In short, for 32 days they had to actively think about how they were living in a World Without Oil. This helped people to actually care about this issue rather than just "raise awareness" about the issue.

So is fun a problem? It depends on how we define fun. Most detractors of purposeful games think that fun is this:

Comfortable and easy. It ensures that nothing is wrong and everything is going to be fine. Most purposeful game champions think fun is this:

Complex, engaging, and challenging.

What is funny is that as managers and consultants are using the word "fun", while video games developers are turning their backs on fun. There are embracing the word "engaging". The same issues that Postman has about people being non-critical thinkers is also annoying developers about the current crop of gamers.

Here is an article about a game designer who thinks that current games are "ruining" a generation of gamers. By "ruining" he means that modern games are making their players worse gamers. How is this possible? In short, he mentions that skill is no longer needed to play certain games and so when these gamers are given a challenge, they balk at it. Fun, the comfortable couch kind, is actually limiting video games! The folks at Extra Credit put it best.

So from an entertainment point of view, Extra Credit comes up with some pretty interesting ways to create engagement. However a group of researchers have gone further and identified the psychological needs that video games can fulfill that are beyond fun: autonomy, presence and perceived competence. An engaging game will put us in a world where we can do what we want, and feel immersed in that world but will also challenge us and give us a sense that we are performing better as we play.

So for purposeful games to work they will have to encourage the behaviour that we want (not more books read, but books read well) and also be engaging. Not fun. Because sometimes amusement is not appropriate. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

How is Purposeful Gaming an Information System Research Topic?

Before I get into today's post just a little bit of background. This month I will have written three papers on gamification in two months. Wow! I did not think that I would be able to do so much but once you work on a topic that you truly enjoy it is really amazing what you can accomplish. Whenever I sat down to write something it was difficult to pull away from the screen. In fact, a paper that I thought would take a month to write was finished in a week. It doesn't feel like research when you are having this much fun, amirite?

Anyways on to the post. What I am proposing is the foundation for purposeful games research in the information systems (IS) field. Ambitious? You bet, but necessary. For whatever reason, the Information System research community has only focused on gamification as a pedagogical tool. However the use of information systems is prevalent for gamified applications. Purposeful games would be harder to implement without using information systems. Therefore our discipline has something more to contribute to this field than being just another domain for using games. But we can't just hope it falls into our laps; we are going to have to go out there and take it for ourselves.

So enough of the soapbox ranting. There are three major areas where research into information systems can lead to worthwhile results for purposeful games and vice versa: Specific business applications, information system development, and information system theories.

Purposeful games are already changing the way that employees interact with existing business applications. For example, one of the most notorious business systems out there is an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. They are difficult to implement, expensive, and touch every part of the business. Therefore employees are forced to work with a system that they probably hate. So now people are being trained in game-like scenarios to use the system. The software becomes a part of a game. Also developers working on marketing IS, like websites and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, will be told to incorporate game-like features into these business systems. How will they do this without simply "PUTTING POINTS ON IT!"?  What is the best way to "gamify" these applications? These are great questions for research and are dependent on understanding how these applications function in the first place. And I cannot think of another discipline that has spilled so much digital ink on topics such as, ERP implementation, as the IS field.

Information system development is the other field that purposeful games can be informed by and inform. Information systems field has a whole research area dedicated to understanding how IS can work in a particular domain and supporting the people who design these systems. This includes not only choosing the right features for the application but also the management of the project and analysis of the context that the application will be implemented. If purposeful games are being implemented through information systems then how should the information systems be implemented to best fit the game? Also games may have certain features and design choices that benefit real-world business applications. Millions of people have used World of Warcraft's auction house interface to buy and sell virtual goods without any problems. Why not implement the exact same interface for real world goods?

The last area where information systems research and purposeful games intersect is the IS adoption/use theories. A large part of the theoretical background of the IS field is built on explaining why people use certain systems and how we can get people to use them more. Purposeful gaming is  specifically about changing people's behaviour. However games include concepts that have been deemed as unnecessary or secondary for business applications. For instance, internal motivation and "fun" are assumed to not be part of IS use and adoption. However the use of purposeful games flies in the face of that assumption. Now IS researchers will have to think about what "fun" means, how IS can implement it, and how it affects IS use and adoption. 

 So that is all for today. Next time I will talk about "fun". How it is purposeful games' biggest hurdle, how it is a possible trap for managers, and why I keep putting quotes around it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On Gamification: The Bad, The Good, and The Difficult

About a year ago a friend and fellow colleague, Dr. Paul Ralph, came to Vancouver for a visit and a conference. As we started to talk more we realised that no one in Information Systems was doing extensive work on gamification. The idea behind gamification is that you can make activities more engaging by adding leaderboards, points, quests and challenges to these activities. By using game elements you can direct behaviour and provide structure to learning and training tasks. We both thought that the idea of using game elements in non-game context was pretty interesting.

Now for the Bad. Gamification was/is a fad. Even consultants who had no game design experience were making big money by walking into companies and effectively saying "Want to spruce up your workplace? PUT SOME POINTS ON IT!"

Some game designers had noticed the trend and decided that gamification was a dead-end; a cynical ploy to swindle unsuspecting companies and consumers out of money. However the critique itself was rather cynical. What is being described is bad gamification. Is it not possible to use game elements in a way that is not abusive or deceptive to the player? Of course there are!

Now for the Good. Several researchers, and even consultants, have identified that there is a problem with how gamification has been implemented. They have realised that focusing on a limited reward structure rather than creating avenues of meaningful play will doom gamification to being what Bogost thinks it is: a cheap marketing ploy.

Now comes the Difficult part. How do we make meaningful gamification and serious games? Essentially this has been my area of research for the past year. And after three papers, and a few presentations and discussions, I believe that I am near to having an answer.

Blast from the Research past

Recently I went through the files on my computer and was surprised to see a file called "Research Ideas.txt". From 2003! Yes 2003! As a fresh-faced and bushy-tailed Master's student (who had been in graduate school for a month!) I had figured out what research was and I was going to research ALL THE THINGS!

My favourite idea is

8) Online B2C Marketplaces powered by the Sims!: Using Avatars in B2C Marketplaces to increase purchasing and trust
So many things wrong. Exclamation points in a title? Over ten words in a title? The SIMS?! Oh you bet that's a paddlin'!

 But right near the end, almost as an afterthought, was the title.

Agents: Modeling Consumer Social Cognition
My notes on the subject also state that someone already did a paper on this and that there is nothing really interesting to write about. Nothing interesting to write about? Someone already worked on the same idea? Dead-end research topic, you say?

 Instead of making my own simulations though I realised that I could help other simulation designers. In the end, my Master's work was a system analysis tool that helps non-coders communicate their needs to the simulation designer. After the Master's though I was sure that I was onto something more useful. When working with the marketing expert I had noticed that the box and arrows that I drew helped to make the simulation better. The expert was able to use the models to understand what went wrong with the first version of the simulation and asked me to change the code accordingly. So my PhD focused on this aspect of my work.

Who knows, if I wasn't so stubborn I might have been writing about the Sims for ten years.


Hello and welcome to my new research blog. My name is Dr. Kafui Monu and I am a researcher at the University of British Columbia. I have focused on representing human decision processes for information system analysis and in the last year I have been working in the domain of purposeful gaming. Purposeful gaming is the use of game and game-like applications for non-entertainment purposes. This includes simulations and "serious" games as well as new forms such as gamification. 

I got the idea for the blog months ago but teaching and research can really drag a guy down. With my class winding down and my papers pretty much finished (until I start the next two in a few days) I have a chance to start this little project. My plan is to carve out at least a few hours a week to post  about how I see purposeful gaming changing our world and current research that I am working on. I will most likely focus on my area: information systems, but also have thoughts on other areas of research such as communications, media, and business.